Lotus Sutra 19: The End is Forgiveness
The Lotus Sutra violates all of our ideas about space and time. The second half of the text lays a particular emphasis on the idea that it isn’t necessary to perfect yourself to become a Buddha. The chants, the prayers, the long sessions of setting – they’re all great of course, but you can get into the dharma express lane (not that we’re trying to get anywhere) by simply seeing everyone you meet (even your enemy) as a Buddha. In that moment, you become a Buddha. Sometimes we can do this, and sometimes it’s just a distant aspiration. Bodi-chitta rather than personal enlightenment, we are wishing and working for the enlightenment of others.
For instance: three monks, students of Thich Nhat Hanh, immolated themselves so that others could light up so that others could see the situation they were in. They set themselves on fire knowing that their pictures would be circulated. The reason we live our lives in all of its singularity and eccentricity is for others. We go against the stream of our own habits and the habit patterns of our culture in order to see everyone as a Buddha.
You can put off striving to be a Buddha and help others as an expression of being a Buddha.
Everything you do counts; even the drinking and the fooling around. But nothing counts as much as staying connected to the oneness of life, and your own heart. The Lotus Sutra shows us how much of our lives are not about us. The Lotus Sutra always reminds us to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can. Some of us are so hard on ourselves. Could we be softer? How to recognize that we’re doing our best? The harm we do also needs to be embraced, and touched with soft hands. Turn towards it all and open your heart, and forgive. This recognition of the harm we’ve caused motivates us to do better.
Our culture fails in feeding people. Why isn’t everyone fed? Why doesn’t everyone have a place to sleep? There are complicated analyses available, the subsystems of subsystems, that detail the global food market exchanges, and at some level, nose pressed up against the window level of understanding, it seems complicated. But at the same time: why can’t everyone have enough to eat? Especially in our culture, when everyone’s trying to lose seven pounds. Is it so complicated? Is anything so complicated?
My son is turning eight, the young days have been so good and fun. There is less snuggling now. And his feet are beginning to smell. How I love to rub his feet – and he loves it too. But now this new smell. When did that start exactly? This is also the oneness of the world.
In The Lotus Sutra the “Perceiver of Sound” is another name for Avalokitesvara. The deepest practice a bodhisattva can ever do is to listen (deeply). At Centre of Gravity, some years ago, we instituted a practice that asked each person to listen for five minutes longer. If someone is talking to you, instead of gapping or tuning out – or perhaps you can detect anxiety, an unbearable loneliness underpinning expression, the terrible need for contact – just hang in, don’t drift away, try to stay present for an extra five minutes.
Avalokitesvara (the bodhisattva of compassion) is talked about for the first time in The Lotus Sutra, and this chapter is sometimes circulated separately as the Avalokitesvara Sutra and is commonly recited or chanted in monasteries in East Asia. A begins life in India as a man, but when he comes to China he changes into a woman named Kwan Yin, the mother of Centre of Gravity. The mother that used to be a father. Kuan Yin is typically depicted leaning, surfing the waves of samsara, off balance, she’s you in your life. She’s holding her vase which is her main tool. She listens to the sounds around her and collects everyone’s tears and pours them back into the ocean. Tears are universal – joy and pain – your sadness is not just your sadness. So much of what you do replays the values of our culture, and it can be hard to see this.
The practice is to be able to listen to the deep cries of the world but not grip onto them, to hold them lightly.
It’s easy to confuse the dedication described at the end of The Lotus Sutra with superstition. But “real practice” closes the gap between superstition and faith. Then we recognize that Kuan-Yin is not just a picture on someone’s mantel. Sometimes when I get still, I feel again the old fears of my childhood. We all live in simultaneous time zones. When we get still we feel the cracks in time and space. I’m 5 years old again, or 8, or 10. I’m time traveling. That moment in time when you’re quiet brings you back the past that you’ve lost, it’s recouped in dreams and visions and the quiet of meditation – in the moment that you can hear those old sounds you are being saved by Kuan-Yin. And you can hold those moments lightly. We take what we feel so personally, but we don’t need to identify with everything that moves through us.
Practice makes the gaps between superstition and faith smaller and smaller. The word srada (Pali: Sada) is usually translated as “faith” but it really means confidence. When the going gets tough, you can return to your practice, this is why we practice. Sometimes seeing the way the practice serves another person’s life gives us the srada to continue, the confidence for dedicated practice. Confidence in the possibility of each moment, breath by breath.
Now that you’ve heard The Lotus Sutra preached you’ll be able to radiate the Sutra in times of great need. In other words: you have a new tool to serve with. This is something we deny with our pain-free meds. We spend so much time turning away from our pain. How much we hurt ourselves – intentionally even. We fail ourselves by not appreciating ourselves. What if we could notice how layers of pain and holding that pain build up in our bodies like plaque? What if you could take the ways you’ve been hurt and put it in the pit at Trinity Bellwoods Park? We could do this collectively. Kuan-Yin shows us how to let go of our tears.
Could we practice forgiveness as a daily hygiene? How do we forgive? It means in part staying with our pain, even though everywhere in society we’ve been told to try to escape our pain. To be a good escape artist you need to constantly pursue distraction so you don’t feel the pain.
Please practice walking meditation around the park, and forgive yourself for whatever stupid thing you’ve done. How much we hold every day. The first step of forgiveness is to stop and feel what you feel. Why? It’s when we sit still that we can feel how painful it is inside. If we don’t do this, we tend to move things around, we shuffle around elements of our lives, we make plans. But none of that really touches the roots of our pain. That’s why meditation is not always peaceful.
Practice 2: Go deeply into the root of pain beneath the story you have about it. The root is always painful. Why? Because you are made of pain. You are the pain of the second dart, the core story arrives out of a wound, and you’ve contracted around that wound to create the story of who you are. When you can connect with that pain you can feel how the one who has hurt you is in the same predicament – they’re also restricted. If you can get to this level, it’s easy to forgive. The only repertoire we have of hurting other people comes from the ways we’ve been hurt.
The hardest thing is to forgive yourself for being yourself.
The hardest thing is to not be annoyed at yourself.
Maybe the goal of spiritual practice is to be whole, to be able to live with the mess of our lives.
And as soon as you’re in pain the precepts (the yamas) return. They sting you. They’re like your eyelashes. It’s as if you’ve painted non-violence on your eyelashes today. Even if you’re beset with revenge fantasies, if you notice what’s going on, the precepts bring you back into your life, and actual relationships, instead of ideas and proliferations and exaggerations of your relations. Then you can start practicing forgiveness. We practice not harboring ill-will by forgiving.
People have good reasons for hating each other. We distract ourselves from feeling our own fears by projecting hate towards others. If your beliefs deny the reality of my beliefs, then I am shaken to the core. Then there will be no choice but to hate you. Your existence threatens my own. It’s not about the land you own. Or I own. It’s about, “Members of your group killed mine. They took language, property and rights.” The more I hate you the more I don’t have to give up my position. How could I be a Jew or a Catholic or a Muslim if I could forgive? It would be a denying of who I am. It would be a betrayal of my family. So many of our cultural conflicts begin this way. Bitterness helps define groups. Everyone is stuck. Hatred goes on. At the center of human gravity, there is bitterness. And people have picnics and fall in love. A huge advance would be to simply see that we are stuck. To stop and see that. To not fool ourselves.
In his 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges says that people who go to war have more meaning in their lives because they know who is right and wrong. Forgiveness threatens our identity – that’s why it is at the heart of spiritual practice. And deeper than this is the desire for peace. In The Lotus Sutra, this desire for peace arrives as a tathagatagarbha, the Buddha womb. Our Buddha nature expresses itself in our imagination, which imagines others around us as a Buddha.
The word forgive is related to dhana – it’s a kind of donation that you make for both of you. Dana means literally: for giving. From an old English phrase: for to give.
There is nothing more powerful than going through enormous pain and then having a change of heart and seeing that there was nothing to regret. And to emerge without cynicism or bitterness. To come home from the war wanting peace, feeling that the enemy isn’t you anymore. Your enemies also want peace, no matter how hidden that impulse might appear. Maybe the only reason we practice is just to have a change of heart – to see yourself in a different way. It’s possible not to act out of resentment. A real change of heart is possible. Every time we get up from our cushions. The heart of forgiveness happens when you stand up. You were given this gift of life. Now you need only say yes. How often do we insist on our resentment, our small feelings? It’s very hard to give up who we think we are.
How to give up who you think you are? When you let go things can get worse because you don’t have the old shields up any longer – and you are left with the original pain of existence. We all have tender hearts and we’ve been beaten up, and it’s hard not to feel this when you get quiet. So we get supported by practice and by the Buddha’s endless mercy. People who have hurt others have done so under the stress of their own restrictions. They are also frightened and confused no matter how much they might seem otherwise. You can open instead of close. It’s up to you.
In the airport, everyone is rushing to get somewhere with their baggage.
A poem written from annotations made in the margins of The Lotus Sutra:
It would be easier at my family dinner table
If Kuan-yin just showed up in Jerusalem
Told everyone to stop sending Israel so much money
And passed around her thin brass vase.
Dinner would end. And someone would tell the first joke:
Did you hear the one about the peace flotilla now stuck in Greece?
You have a jewel
Sewn into your coat
But you keep believing in your own poverty
So much so that you think words
Are the only way
You go your way saying, “Let me think about that.”
Though your body is a margin that is closer
To you than paper is to wood
Go in there, yes, there
It’s the country you can never leave,
It’s the same as forgiveness
An endless whisper
That runs down the middle of every sentence
Or maybe forgiveness is like that place in Poland
Where my grandfather was born
They didn’t have roads, eh said, imagine that
A time, a country, a life, before roads.
Now everything is paved over
And anyways your life keeps happening
Shoveling shit, running from the house
When it’s burning
And it’s burning.
In the middle of suffering
There is a deep peace
It’s disguised sometimes as rain
You can see it from a train window
Every day has a stride… and clouds
We only need do
And Buddha does the rest
Sad as it may be
Suffering is OK
That impossible coda of The Lotus Sutra
Is this: keep faith in what you are
Keep faith in exactly what you are.
Could we undertake forgiveness as a daily hygiene practice? Could we activate The Lotus Sutra in this way? It’s really hard to change your mind, to have a change of heart. We wish other people would do it instead.
Out of forgiveness comes love. Though this doesn’t mean simply that we forgive and forget – we might need boundaries. Sometimes I can do it intellectually but my skin can’t do it. I can’t sit in that seat, I can’t make the phone call. There can be forgiveness but you still need to protect yourself. Or do you? What are you hanging onto?
Buddhist psychology is deeply distrustful of ambition. The things that really turn us on helps others. The world is a better place when you’re in touch with what you love. When you live outside that love you can have an ambition to get somewhere in order to ground the groundlessness. How many people suffer from meaningless work?
The Buddhist teachings around money make two points: you shouldn’t have debt and you shouldn’t have contact with arms. But where can you put money in Canada that has no contact with arms? With mining companies or the tar sands? You can’t be pure, we’re constrained by the values of society. How to be aware of ambition and how it props up anxiety at the ground of the self?
To be soft with yourself is forgiveness, it is love. As opposed to this religious idea that we’ll become a saint and get Dalai Lama giggles. If you brush your teeth twice a day, perhaps you could go to the park twice a day and forgive yourself. The Buddha’s instructions about meditation were: go sit under a tree and cross your legs.
Walk around a park, find your breath, stop the running train of your mind. Not to deny what’s actually going on, but to drop in.
Forgiveness needs to be balanced with holding yourself accountable – we need to do both. To search out habitual reaction patterns there has to be mindfulness and forgiveness in equal measure. “How many times are you going to marry a man like that?” It’s a dance.
If your stuff is in storage you don’t need it.
Keep faith in exactly what you are.